Stopping an infinite regress of sufficient reasons for acting libertarian-freely

Suzy libertarian-freely chooses A, given the choice between A and B, and does so for Reasons R. Had Suzy libertarian-freely chosen B, she would have done so for reasons R*. R and R* are distinct, and possibly incommensurable. Now, in the actual world, Suzy chose A, and her choice is supposed to be sufficiently explained by citing R. If somebody asks why Suzy chose A rather than B, we can simply cite R (along with the fact that A and B are mutually excluding).

The objector says: Alright, that Suzy libertarian-freely chose A seems to be sufficiently explained by citing R. She acted on R. However, why did she act on R? and why did she act on R rather than R*?

At first this sounds like a good question, but I’m not sure it is. This question treats Suzy acting on R ‘A-ly’ as though acting on R rather than R* were itself a choice. This is clearly wrong. For a reductio, suppose I give a reason R1 for why Suzy acted on R, (and that if she had acted on R* it would have been because of R1*) would you then just ask me why Suzy acted on R1, or, indeed, why she acted on R1 rather than R1*? This very quickly leads to an infinite regress of explanations. Such an infinite regress cannot exist. Notice this is stronger than ‘does not’ exist – if the question is only coherent if there can possibly be an answer, and if the only answer to it would be infinitely regressive, then if no question for which an answer must be infinitely regressive is coherent, the question cannot be coherent. One can try to get out of this by simply denying the PSR or something, but here they have to argue that the PSR is not even possibly true (and I doubt very much that they want to take on that task), or that infinitely regressive explanations are legitimate (which seems absurd at best, and certainly at least a higher price to pay than finding another solution).

So, something must be wrong with the question itself. I think there is something wrong with the question. One cannot meaningfully ask what reason Suzy had for acting on some of her reasons rather than others. After all, the reasons in R are supposed to include an exhaustive list of reasons for A, and thus any reason for R would be part of R. Therefore, it makes no sense to ask what reasons Suzy had for R. The infinite regress is stopped in its tracks.

I will leave aside, for the moment, the hard contrastive question of why Suzy did A rather than B, but I will note that if the preceding analysis is correct, there is no sensible question asking why (meaning, for what reason) Suzy acted on R rather than R*. Even the contrastive question has to be quarantined.


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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3 Responses to Stopping an infinite regress of sufficient reasons for acting libertarian-freely

  1. There’s a similar issue in metaethics. The Humean Theory of Reasons says: If there is a reason for someone to do something, then she must have some desire that would be served by her doing it. Moral realists/Kantians want to say that there are reasons that are independent of your desires; e.g., the evil Caligula has a reason not to torture even though all his desires push him that way. The realist then asks: what reason do you have to pursue your desires? The HTR proponent replies: because I desire to pursue my desires. The realist then asks: why reason do you have to pursue your desire to pursue your desires? So goes the regress. I think the correct response for the Humean is to quickly end the regress and say there is no reason why I pursue my desires, or why I pursue my desire to pursue my desires; I’m merely built that way.

    Let’s take Suzy choosing between telling the truth and lying. Why did Suzy tell the truth rather than lie? You might say she honesty impresses her more than deception. So why does honesty impress her more than deception? Well, the reason is God created her that way. So why did God create her that way? Well, God valued Suzy being honest rather than being deceptive. So why did God value Suzy being honest rather than deceptive? Well, God necessarily is that way (to stop the regress).

    This is related to Strawson’s basic argument.

    • Strawson writes there: “In fact, nearly all of those who believe in strong free will do so without any conscious thought that it requires ultimate self-origination. But self origination is the only thing that could actually ground the kind of strong free will that is regularly believed in.”

      ‘Self origination’ is just a queer way to use language. The libertarian wants to say that a choice originates from a self, a person, but the person does not originate from itself.

      You said: “Why did Suzy tell the truth rather than lie? You might say she honesty impresses her more than deception.”

      However, obviously that is no longer a libertarian account.

  2. You said: “The libertarian wants to say that a choice originates from a self…”
    But it seems the choice is at the very least influenced by your biology. You may choose to have sex or tell jokes, but imagine a different biological creature like Spok the Vulcan; he might not be biologically disposed to tell jokes. For Spok, the telling of jokes never becomes a live option. So it seems like your biology (along with the environment etc.) determines (or is at least a major factor in) the possibilities of your very first live options as a child; certain choices have higher probabilities than others. Saying certain choices have higher probability fits in with the pre-theoretic notion than someone will probably tell the truth depending on your antecedent belief about their honesty. What do you suppose is the source of the initial live options?

    Suzy being impressed by honesty more than deception is a libertarian R on one account. Or you can discard R altogether and become a Jamesian libertarian. R is the post hoc explanation given for why she told the truth. I’m not saying R sufficiently determines the choice.

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